Anti-death penalty advocacy in the MENA region

Anti-death penalty advocacy in the MENA region

Peta Mossman & Simone Abel | 29 September 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic did not appear to deter some retentionist countries from continuing to sentence individuals to death and carrying out executions. In 2020 alone, Amnesty International recorded the execution of  483 individuals around the world (excluding China). Countries in the Middle East and North Africa (‘MENA’) region were responsible for the majority of these executions, with Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia accounting for 88% of known executions in 2020. In Egypt, the number of individuals executed in 2020 was 107, a figure that has more than tripled since 2019, making Egypt the 'world's third most frequent executioner' . This momentum has continued into 2021, with at least 71 executions having taken place in Egypt so far. Another country in which we have seen a similarly worrying rise in the imposition of death sentences is Bahrain. A recent report by Reprieve UK and the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (‘BIRD’) revealed that Bahrain carried out 6 executions between 2011 and 2020 , compared to 5 in the previous decade, and sentenced at least 51 individuals to death, a significant increase from the 7 death sentences handed down in the decade prior.

In discussion with Jeed Basyouni and Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei

On 23 September, at Eleos Justice’s Conversation Series event in collaboration with partner Capital Punishment Justice Project, we had the opportunity to hear from two activists who work in the MENA region, Jeed Basyouni from Reprieve and Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei from the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD).

Rising execution and death sentencing rates in Egypt & Bahrain

We discussed why the rate of execution and rate of death sentences being given by courts is rising in some MENA countries. Sayed and Jeed explained that in both Egypt and Bahrain, the use of the death penalty is often politically motivated. For example, Egypt saw hundreds of individuals sentenced to death via mass trials in 2013, following a conflict between authorities and supporters of former President Morsi at sit-ins, which were organized to protest the military’s forcible removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected President. This led Egypt to establish "terrorism courts" whose specific task it was to hear trials for alleged political violence, and which have since sentenced hundreds to death.  While in Bahrain, the use of the death penalty 'dramatically escalated' following the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests in 2011. Data collected by Reprieve and BIRD suggested that individuals who were seen as political opposition to the current regime were being 'targeted, tortured, sentenced to death and executed' at an increasingly high rate. Of the 26 individuals on death row in Bahrain, almost half are political prisoners.

Bahrain also timed executions in some cases, to coincide with moments of political transition or shifts in geopolitics. For instance, the executions of Abbas al-Samea, Ali al-Singace and Sami Mushaima coincided with the transition period in the US Administration as then President Trump took office. The execution of three men in July 2019 came just days after the United States announced that it would reinstate the federal death penalty and British Parliament was in recess.

The reality of death penalty trials in Egypt & Bahrain

Trials in Egypt and Bahrain fall far short of internationally recognized fair trial standards and breach Article 14(3) of the ICCPR. Capital defendants are often tried in mass in Egypt. One trial in Egypt saw 75 out of a total of 739 defendants sentenced to death in 2013. The number of defendants in these cases means it is impossible for counsel to make individual submissions on behalf of their clients. It is well-known that the use of torture is commonplace to extract confessions in both Egypt and Bahrain. In Bahrain specifically, Reprieve and BIRD declare that the use of torture is "endemic", with 92% of those facing execution for ‘terrorism-related’ offences alleging they were tortured by authorities.

What can be done to prevent this?

Intimidation and other tactics are used by some MENA states to silence those who speak out about the use of the death penalty or other human rights abuses. In Bahrain, for example, travel bans were imposed on human rights defenders attempting to travel to Geneva to attend the 32nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council. Sayed and Jeed both spoke about the importance of international advocacy, and Sayed cited examples of cases in Bahrain where ‘international advocacy and investigative work have saved lives.’ The role of the European Parliament and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention as well as other UN bodies was referenced in relation to effective advocacy at the international level which spared lives in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt.

Jeed spoke of the impact of trial monitoring, and praised the commitment of the Australian Government to abolition, as well as the physical presence of Australian government representatives during court proceedings in some instances. This is effective abolitionist diplomacy. The audience also heard about racecar driver Lewis Hamilton’s intervention on behalf of Bahraini political prisoners including Mohammed Ramadhan, and the effective intervention by the Australian Government to ensure that Bahraini footballer Hakim al-Araibi was returned to Australia from Thailand despite an extradition request by Bahrain. The event concluded with an emphasis on the need for abolitionist governments to utilize two tools in their toolbox – trade and aid – to ensure that they consistently encourage abolition and impose consequences upon MENA states for the use of the death penalty and related abuses.

Peta Mossman is in her penultimate year of a combined Bachelor of Law/Science (Mathematics Major) at the University of Technology Sydney. She is particularly interested in the practice area of human rights law, an interest that has grown during her time volunteering at the Capital Punishment Justice Project, and hopes to pursue this following completion of her degree.

Simone Abel is the CEO of Capital Punishment Justice Project.